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Where will big oil’s big profits go?

Mark Trumbull, The Christian Science Monitor
Exxon Mobil says some windfall will go to more drilling.
After a particularly heady gush of oil- company profits, everyone from industry executives to international energy policymakers seems to be asking the same question: What should be done with all that cash?

The scale of the windfall is stunning: Exxon Mobil reported Thursday $10.36 billion in quarterly profits for the three months ending June 30. The results beat Wall Street expectations and marked, according to the Associated Press, the second-highest quarterly profit in history. The highest ever? Exxon’s $10.71 billion in the fourth quarter of 2005.
In the Monitor

It’s an industrywide earnings bonanza built on the very thing – rising oil prices – that have been a source of growing consumer anxiety during a summer of $3-a-gallon gasoline.

“They’re just benefiting from a strong commodity cycle and doing a very good job of it,” says Lysle Brinker, an analyst with energy research firm John S. Herold. “But they don’t operate in a vacuum and they realize that. They’re going to get tons of spears and blow darts from political and consumer groups.”

The report puts oil companies in an embarrassment-of-riches quandary. The profit surge, coupled with fears that high oil prices may be here to stay, adds political pressure to an industry that rarely wins popularity contests.

Some critics have resurrected calls for a windfall profits tax to tap some of the industry’s new bounty for the public good. Other policy analysts, meanwhile, say the companies should plow the profits into drilling new wells to boost the world’s tight supplies of petroleum.

Many major US-based oil companies are doing just that, to some degree. But the public scrutiny comes as oil companies face a more difficult environment for boosting output. New oil supplies will increasingly need to come from hard-to-tap reserves, or from hostile or politically volatile countries such as Venezuela, Nigeria, and Iran.
(28 July 2006)

Big Oil: Booming Profits, Climbing Costs

Sonja Ryst, Business Week
Oil companies are raking it in-and spending it, too
Oil companies’ financial results look great this year, thanks to high prices. But those healthy profits are masking costs that keep getting worse. A raft of companies trotted out stunning earnings in late July for the three-month period ended in June.

…Profits are booming, but energy outfits have to work harder-and spend lots more-to keep pulling ever-pricier oil out of the ground. That has fueled a spending competition for services such as drilling equipment, driving up companies’ business costs for the past couple years.

And developments in recent months-such as higher taxes and new investment projects-are not the kind that will go away if oil prices fall. Meanwhile, experts are debating whether the global economic demand that’s been boosting prices this year can be sustained.
(27 July 2006)

Shell Shocked

Christopher Helman, Forbes
Scrambling to catch up after its oil reserves scandal, Shell is running ever faster to stay in place. Is there salvation in natural gas?

Financially, Shell is healthy, with a $6.9 billion profit on revenue of $76 billion in the first quarter. Analysts expect it to earn $24 billion, or $7.28 a share, this year.

But $75 oil hides a multitude of sins. In physical terms Shell is weak. Over the past three years it has replaced only 38% of the oil it has pumped. It is desperately searching for new pools of crude while trying to make up for their scarcity by shifting its focus toward natural gas. Gas is plentiful but hard to move–hence, in most cases, much less valuable as it comes out of the ground. Shell has suffered disarray in giant projects in Nigeria and on Russia’s Sakhalin Island, and pricey delays in developing several prospects, including South Mars.

All oil companies confront the fact that petroleum is getting hard to find in politically stable parts of the globe. But Shell is in more of a crisis than the others because of a problem of its own doing: For years it exaggerated the size of its reserves. In January 2004 it confessed to the problem, eventually slicing 4.5 billion barrels of oil-and-gas equivalents off proved reserves, which now stand at 11.5 billion barrels. Counting only crude oil, reserves are down from 6.6 billion barrels in January 2003 to 4.6 billion now. This is more than a bookkeeping matter. Shell’s production of oil has been dwindling at a rate of 7% a year
(27 July 2006)

European Heat Wave Shows Limits of Nuclear Energy

Julio Godoy, via Common Dreams
July 28, 2006 by
PARIS – The extreme hot summer in Europe is restricting nuclear energy generation and showing up the limits of nuclear power, leading environmental activists and scientists say.

The heat wave since mid-June has led authorities in France, Germany, Spain and elsewhere in Europe to override their own environmental norms on the maximum temperature of water drained from the plants’ cooling systems.

The French government announced July 24 that nuclear power plants situated along rivers will be allowed to drain hot water into rivers at higher temperature. The measure is intended “to guarantee the provision of electricity for the country,” according to an official note.

France has 58 nuclear power plants, which produce almost 80 percent of electricity generated in the country. Of these, 37 are situated near rivers, and use them as outlet for water from their cooling systems.

The drought accompanying the hot summer has reduced the volume of water in the rivers, and might force some power plants to shut down.

Under normal circumstances, environment rules limit the maximum temperature for waste water in order to protect river flora and fauna.

“For many years now, French authorities have defended nuclear power arguing that it is clean energy, good for the environment, and that it will help combat global warming, for it does not emit greenhouse gases,” Stephane Lhomme, coordinator of the environmental network Sortir du Nucleaire (Phase Out Nuclear Power) told IPS.

“Now, with global warming leading to extreme hot summers, we are witnessing that it is the other way round,” Lhomme said. “Global warming is showing the limits of nuclear power plants, and nuclear power is destroying our environment.”
(28 July 2006)